How We Sound (And Why It’s Funny)

The Arts


A good actor can make an ordinary line sound better than it reads. Years ago, I worked with Kenneth Williams, who kindly sat with me for a while to discuss how to get the best out of words. He was meticulous about the crafting of sentences and where to place intonations, but it clearly came naturally to him. The same thing happened when I worked with George Hamilton and Leslie Nielsen, both of whom had comic timing that was superb and entirely natural. But having spent a lot of time in sound studios, I soon got used to other actors simply not understanding where to place emphases on my dialogue lines. It was amazing how often they failed to understand or ‘hear’ the reading. I interviewed Peter Rogers about the ‘Carry On’ films and it was obvious that some of the scriptwriters’ wordplay shot right over his head, which is worrying considering he was making them. He was terribly nice but clearly didn’t have much of a sense of humour.

Comedy directors often have a tin ear. I know one particularly famous one who wouldn’t spot a laugh if you stamped on his foot just before it came up. In Neil Simon’s ‘The Sunshine Boys’, comedian Willy Clark gives a lesson in which words are funny, including those that start with a ‘K’. That may seem random, but there are clearly ways of constructing sentences that are more surprising to the ear. The Jewish humour of Neil Simon always makes me laugh. In ‘The Prisoner of Second Avenue’, which is about a man who has a nervous breakdown, Jack Lemon fails to notice they’ve been robbed, and his wife is forced to define robbery. ‘You know, they come in, they take stuff, they leave, it was yours, it’s now theirs – robbery.’ The staccato makes the line work.

Irish and Northern British writers do this without thinking, it seems, capturing the accidental cruelties of small talk. One thinks of Noel Coward as the upper class wordsmith but he could be surprisingly down-to-earth. ‘Has our son started shaving yet?’ Robert Newton asks his neighbour in ‘This Happy Breed’. ‘Well he just took the heads orf a couple of spots,’ comes the reply.

When it comes to US crime I like Joe R Lansdale’s brilliant way of fitting dark and light together into a seamless whole,- his characters are always memorable –  and for English crime, Margery Allingham remains the one to beat. Commenting on a suspect’s dress sense, her friend explains, ‘She’s above clothes.’ The shorthand says it all.

Recently several of the BBC’s wiped archives were recreated when ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ brought life to scripts that no-one had heard in half a century. Galton & Simpson understood that words are funny when placed in juxtaposition. The very first episode had featured the immortal line ‘Who threw jelly over the Rembrandt?’ The shows started in a fantastical vein and calmed down to something exquisite and daring – nobody had ever left dead air on the radio this way before.

The new versions of the lost shows feature one in which Hancock is bemused to discover his Great Uncle Palmerston has bequeathed him a national newspaper. “Last time I read a newspaper was when I took the lino up,” Hancock declares. The material is from 1956 script, and we must make certain allowances, but much of it remains hilarious. The shows were produced to celebrate the 60th anniversary, but didn’t all go out on air, though they’re available to buy.

Recently ‘Cabin Pressure’ has brought back the traditional idea of the clever intonation – the full set has just been released at a rather exorbitant price.

2 comments on “How We Sound (And Why It’s Funny)”

  1. snowy says:

    Forgive me if I lower the tone and drag in vulgar matters of trade.

    The ‘Cabin Pressure’ box set, 27 episodes worth on 14 discs can be picked up for about £33, just shop around*. [Not scheduled for release in North America until April].

    [Should anyone wonder ‘What is this Cabin Pressure thing?’ it’s a radio sitcom starring Bendy Cucumberpatch amongst ohers, [but Roger Allam seems to get all the best lines]. There were whole episodes on YouTube once upon a time, but they have disappeared, unsurprisingly. But there are still a lot of snipets on there to ‘get a taste’ of the thing.]

    *Still a bit too expensive? Try charming your local librarian into ordering a copy for the audio-book section! Librarians are very nice people, [and respond very well if lubricated with wine or chocolates, apparently!]

  2. Helen Martin says:

    Compliments on the librarian’s good taste will also work if a straightforward written request doesn’t, Snowy. How many sets of parentheses and or footnotes can one fit into a single post? I’d be tempted to offer a prize if it weren’t all but certain that Snowy would win.

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